With this installment I begin my 15th year as faith and values columnist for The Reporter. As such I have reflected on the meaning infused within the mileposts on life’s journey. I’ve touched on such things as births, graduations, career achievements, sports accomplishments and family struggles. A frequent theme has been the fleeting and fragile nature of the human experience.
For a chaplain at a retirement community, anticipated death is a common occurrence. Unexpected death, on the other hand, takes your breath away. That was the situation when Bud Palmberg, my dear friend and ministry colleague, died while on a preaching mission in Bali. This much-loved resident at Covenant Shores lost his balance on the way to dinner, fell and hit his head. The resulting brain injury proved fatal.
Since Bud has been a fixture in my life for forty years, his sudden death hit me harder than normal. As a fellow pastor 17 years my senior, he mentored me when I was called to my first church out of seminary. We regularly played golf on Mondays. He even provided premarital counseling prior when Wendy and I got engaged. I never could have guessed that twenty-five years later I would have the privilege of being called to lead the church on Mercer Island he served for a quarter of a century. Neither could I have anticipated I would be his chaplain the last several years of his life.
Dealing with my friend’s unexpected death was made a bit easier knowing he was ready to go. Whereas a significant part of my job description is helping residents “pack their bags for Heaven,” Bud’s bags were tagged and waiting for pick up. A sermon he gave at church a year ago called attention to his anticipation of death and his hope of resurrection. That audio clip was played at his memorial service.
About the time Bud preached on his readiness to die, another unexpected death occurred at Covenant Shores. It was a giant willow tree that has guarded our lakefront for over a hundred years. This much-loved fixture to our campus has provided shelter for many an outdoor concert.
Last July, five days following a performance by the 75 piece Bellevue Community Band, the giant tree collapsed in the middle of the night. Although we were grateful the willow had not fallen on any unsuspecting individuals, we were deeply saddened to lose a friend. The sudden loss of what we had taken for granted was devastating. The arborists were called and came to remove the limbs we had grown to love. The emotional impact was such that we even held a memorial service for the tree.
This past Easter Sunday, as I prepared to lead our annual sunrise service on the lakeshore, I walked by the stump of the old willow tree and marveled at what I saw. In the dawn’s early light was picture of resurrection. New life was growing from what had died. Unexpected death had given way to signs of hope.
The “resurrection tree” has become a source of comfort to me as I grieve those in my life who have been taken from me unexpectedly. It is a beautiful reminder that people of faith do not grieve as those who have no hope. I guess you could call that “good grief.”
Greg Asimakoupoulos is the chaplain at Covenant Shores Retirement Community.